Innovative Technology Speeds Up Tracing of Children
Helping track down and reunite missing children with their families in the wake of natural disasters.
It has been three years, but the day a 7.4 magnitude and tsunami shook the province of Central Sulawesi in Indonesia, killing over 4,000 people and injuring at least 10,000, is still etched in the minds of those who survived them.
A few days after the disaster, the province was a mass scene of death and devastation. There were body bags and mass burials. Rescuers clawing through the rubble in search of survivors. Houses tumbling as the liquefying ground beneath them turn to jelly.
No less heartbreaking was the sight of grief-stricken families walking through the debris sticking posters on shop windows and lamp posts, pleading passers-by for any information regarding their missing children. When the tsunami struck, many of these children were separated from their parents as the latter tried to hold onto the former while outrunning one giant wave after the other.
When the electricity and telecommunication services went back on, many posted their plights on social media. But without the tool and the mechanism to speed up the tracing process, the whole exercise was akin to the blind leading the blind.
“It’s a huge challenge to get a comprehensive picture of how many children are missing. There are more requests to reunite children and parents than information on children found.”
Primero: a digital app that traces and reunifies children with their families
One of UNICEF’s early responses to the disaster was to aid the Government of Indonesia in family tracing and reunification.
It did so first by setting up posts in 12 affected areas for people to seek and offer information on missing children—and as designated safe spaces for children to play.
Within a few days after distributing posters and hotline numbers on social media, the UNICEF team received over a hundred tracing requests. Yet every hour and every day counts when a child has been separated from his or her parent. The stark lesson of an earlier catastrophe—the Indian Ocean Tsunami in Aceh and the northern coasts of Sumatra—loomed large: back then, social workers and aid groups only had pens and paper at their disposal while struggling with a much bigger caseload.
It was then that UNICEF turned to Primero, an open source case-and-information management system to protect vulnerable children, women and survivors of violence. Though originally designed for data management in non-emergency contexts, over the years Primero has been upgraded and used by many countries in time of conflicts and natural disasters.
“(Primero) is fast, convenient, mobile, and has a wide reach.”
Since adopting Primero, UNICEF’s first priority was to train field workers including social workers from the Ministry of Social Affairs on how to use its Indonesian language web and mobile versions. After a few months, these workers had become adept at collecting and entering a child’s basic data including how she or he was separated from her or his families.
Data collection was not only confined to parents and family members seeking help. “We also scoured hundreds of postings by citizen groups on social media,” said Fadlun Badjerey, a social worker from the Ministry of Social Affairs. “These were intense and draining months. But it’s all been worth the effort.”
To date, Primero has been credited for reuniting a great number of children with their families and for vastly improving field management.
Other UNICEF-supported tech innovations for use in emergencies
In addition to Primero, another UNICEF-supported tech innovation deemed successful is the U-report. Launched a few years ago by UNICEF Indonesia, it is a Twitter-based communication platform that has enabled hundreds of thousands of young people in Indonesia to voice their opinions on various development issues and convey them to policy makers.
As with Primero, UNICEF also provided field workers with training on how to use the app effectively. Since then, their posts on the U-Report have helped reunite many children with their loved ones.
While tech innovations such as Primero and U-Report have clearly proven to be time-saving and efficient in emergency situations, distributing them to every natural disaster-prone location across the country remains a challenge. Infrastructure upgrade and training as part of prevention measures also requires ongoing resources and funding, which will greatly benefit from your donation.
How You Can Help
Thanks to the generous contributions of individual donors, UNICEF and their partners have been able to work with tech institutions and entrepreneurs, health and child protection officials and workers, emergency task forces and members of local communities across Indonesia to help them track missing children and reunite them with their families.
Indonesia’s location on the Pacific Ring of Fire (an area with a high degree of tectonic activity), however, makes it vulnerable to more natural calamities in the future. More efforts are needed not only to make emergency technology available and fully-functioning in as many natural disaster-prone locations as possible, but also to introduce or upgrade preventive measures in reducing the number of future casualties. For this we need your support.
If you want to help minimize the tolls of natural disasters on our families and our children and keep your family safe, please consider donating to UNICEF. We very much appreciate your contribution.